How to Chop Firewood Basics, Including Large Tree Trunk Sections
Though I will be very happy if my article helps you to learn to split firewood the “real way”, your use of this article as a guide indicates that you agree that I am not responsible if you hurt yourself while chopping/splitting wood or using any of the tools or methods that I recommend.
Everyone loves a good wood fire!
Chopping Firewood the Real Way
This article will teach you (almost) everything you need to know about chopping firewood by hand, whether you’re dealing with smaller branches or huge rounds cut from the trunks of great trees. Splitting and chopping firewood are the same thing really, just different terms. I prefer to say chopping, because I think of splitting wood as a more controlled, intentional process, like splitting a log for fence rails. So for the purpose of this article, I’ll be saying that I chop firewood, etc. It’s one of my all-time favorite things to do. Maybe that sounds a little odd, maybe not. But if you want to know how to chop just about any type of wood, no matter the issues, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve chopped a lot of wood and learned a few tricks along the way.
Read on to learn how to accomplish such firewood-chopping-feats as “taking its heart,” “going in the back door,” and “speaking to it.”
And you thought we were just going to talk about splitting wood.
Basic Things to Consider Before You Get Started
1) Use the right tool. For chopping wood by hand anything less than a six-pound splitting maul is, in my opinion, a waste of your time. Small axes are good for small pieces of wood, but a heavier axe will get the job done faster. Forget those three-pound axes they sell at the hardware store – if you’re up against a piece of green ash, or twisted elm, or branchy locust, all you’re going to do is get that thing stuck. What you really want is an eight-pound splitting maul. Remember: “Eight is great.” Much heavier than eight, and you’ll run out of steam. Much lighter, and you may not have what you need.
2) Have metal wedges available to you. Have more than one. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with something like a three-foot round of oak, you’ll get one wedge stuck and have to free it by opening the wood with a second wedge. Sometimes you’ll lose track of one of your wedges, drop it in the brush or leave it in a stump you forgot about, so for best results have at least three.
3) Safety goggles, or at least sunglasses, are a good thing to have when you are doing wedge work. Hitting the metal head of your eight-pounder against the metal wedge with the kind of force you’re going to be generating can cause little metal shards to go flying. I know it’s not very manly to wear goggles while you’re chopping wood, but I offer this as a disclaimer: When beating metal on metal, wear goggles. I had a sliver of metal wedge fly into my face once (luckily not into my eyes) and I tell you, it didn’t feel very good and scared me into wearing sunglasses.
4) Don’t chop firewood in shorts and/or sandals – that would just be silly. Wear long pants and real shoes.
5) Know what type of wood you are dealing with. What do you want it for – indoor or outdoor fires? Is it a hardwood or a soft wood like pine? If you want it for your fireplace or woodstove, it should be a hardwood. So which type? I’m not saying you have to be a forester or an arborist to chop firewood, but it really does help to know which species of tree you’re working with. If you haven’t chopped a lot of wood in your lifetime yet, you’ll soon learn from experience that different types of trees yield wood that is different when it comes to splitting it and using it for firewood.
6) Make sure your logs are cut to the size you want them. 14-18 inches for a woodstove or fireplace is usually good. If you’re chopping for outdoor fires, like campfires or big bonfire parties, the length is really up to you. It’s nice when it’s short enough to manage, though. And the truth is that shorter lengths generally split easier than longer ones.
7) Speaking of cutting your wood, when you do so, do yourself a favor and cut through some of those knots and branches in your log(s). Chopping a knotty piece of wood is easier if the knots have already been damaged by a saw.
8) Use a chopping block, or chopping stump, if you can. Usually one of the big rounds from the tree you are working on turning into firewood will work just fine. Nothing fancy, just something stable that will raise the pieces of wood off the ground and save your back a little. Chopping directly into the ground, even into soft dirt, will damage the edge of your axe, hatchet, or splitting maul.
9) If you’ve never swung an axe or a splitting maul before, then try some practice swings to improve your accuracy. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that being accurate is half the battle. To practice aiming, take a piece of wood, set it on your block, and draw a line in it with the sharp edge of your splitting maul. Now, line up your swing by touching the blade to the mark, square up your legs, keep your eyes fixed where you want to hit, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (never to one side or the other!) and pull down, bending at the knees and using your legs for power. Did you hit the mark? Keep working at it until you get fairly accurate – my advice about chopping firewood will be basically useless to you if you can’t strike at least in the general vicinity of where you want to.
How to Chop (The Easiest Possible Piece of Firewood)
1) Select a piece of wood and place it squarely on your chopping block, if you have one, so that it won’t fall over. In most cases, wood splits more easily if you go from the “top”. What I mean by that is this: Every piece of wood, whether from a branch or a trunk, has a fat end and a thinner end. The “top” is the thinner end; the “backdoor” is the fatter or wider end. The reason wood splits more easily from the top has to do with grain tension. I like to think of chopping firewood as taking apart the tree, and it needs to be done (usually) in the opposite way that the tree grew. Now there are instances where you have to go in the backdoor , but we’ll discuss that later. So, place your piece of wood top-side up, fat end down.
2) Take a look at the end grain of the piece of wood in question. The end grain is the inner part of the log that has been exposed because you cut the wood – it’s where you are able to count the growth rings. So, looking at the end grain, you will probably see at least one “check”, or crack. You want to take advantage of where the wood has checked, if you can. If there is more than one, choose the widest and longest. Let’s assume you have a relatively straight piece of, say, black cherry, 9 inches in diameter, with a check that goes through the heart (“the heart” is the center of the end grain – the smallest ring – the oldest part of the piece of tree you are working with, and the center of grain tension). You’ll want to hit that check with your eight-pounder.
3) Face the wood, line up your swing by placing the blade of your eight-pounder over the check, keep your back straight, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (not to either side – you will hurt your back and won’t generate nearly as much power!), and pull the splitting maul downwards, thrusting it into the wood, bending at the kness and using your legs to generate power. If you land your blow square in the check of our pretend piece of cherry, all other factors unconsidered, the round should fly apart into two pieces of firewood.
There, that was easy, right? Well, if you really are splitting cherry, then it probably was easy. And for most small-diameter pieces of wood, like cherry or sassafras, or branches off of various types of large trees, this method will work for whatever you are chopping. But even cherry can have its challenges, to say nothing of oak, locust, black walnut, maple, elm, or the dreaded sycamore. And besides, we were only discussing a piece of wood with a small diameter. What do you do with a big round, maybe a trunk section of an oak or a maple, four feet in diameter?
How to Chop a Big Round of Wood
How to Chop Big Rounds
I classify a “big round” of wood as a section of trunk or branch two-feet in diameter or greater. There are only so many species of tree that grow to have huge trunk diameters. Just to name some, there’s oak, ash, maple, poplar, black walnut, sycamore, and willow. As far as firewood for heating is concerned, of the types of wood I just listed, I would only toil away to get firewood from a big round of oak, ash, maple, or black walnut (if I was desperate- black walnut doesn’t throw a lot of heat).
When dealing with a big round, the process is basically the same regardless of the type of wood.
Examine the Wood:
1) Make sure the big round is sitting top-up, backdoor to the ground (see above section “How to Chop” for an explanation of this if you missed it). It’s always best to start this way.
2) Assess the wood. Look at the end grain and locate the heart – is it centered or off-center? Does the round you’re dealing with have multiple hearts that you will have to contend with? Look at the bark or outer sapwood if the bark has rotted off or been removed. If there are knots, branches, or twists in the grain you should be able to see evidence. Knots and branches are problems when it comes to chopping wood, and in general when dealing with a big round you should leave the knotty, branchy sections for last. If the wood is severely twisted, or cork-screwed, or curly (as sycamore and silver maple so often are), you will need to be aware of this when setting wedges. Most types of wood will have at least a slight twist in the grain unless you are dealing with something veneer-quality. Finally, look to the end grain again and see if there are any checks. Long wide checks are your friends. You may not see any checks at all. That’s okay – you can make some.
1) The first thing to try with a big round is to remove as much of the outer layers of wood as possible. This will begin to relieve the grain tension. Every piece of wood that you remove from a big round will, theoretically, make each remaining piece easier to dislodge. Start with a side of the round that is free of knots, and swing your splitting maul so that the blade will land 5 to 6 inches from the edge of the round. Work systematically, moving around the wood, avoiding knots, and removing as much the outer wood as you can. I also refer to this method as “stripping.” You may need to beat on the same place more than once in order to remove a piece of firewood. When your splitting maul makes contact, the wood should at least check. Keep swinging at the checks you’ve made until you dislodge a piece of firewood. I have dealt with big four and five foot ash rounds that I chopped without the use of wedges, using this method. You might find that your big round of wood call be fully chopped this way, too!
2) Once you have stripped the round of as much outerwood as you could get, you may find that you can’t seem to dislodge any more firewood in this fashion. At this point you can begin taking advantage of the checks. Aim your maul where the wood has checked, ignoring checks that obviously lead to knots, and swing away. If you have a check that goes through the heart, and the wood you are chopping isn’t too unfriendly, you could at this point split the round in half. If you’re able to do that, then just continue chopping the halves as you would any other piece of wood and you should be fine. If you’ve halved the round, and you get stuck, then read on for instructions.
So what if your wood is so unfriendly that you can only strip off a little bit of the outer wood, or none at all, or you’ve stripped it and the end grain is not checked and you cannot seem to dislodge any wood with your splitting maul? You will need to use metal wedges to speak to it. (Safety precaution: When using metal wedges, wear protective eyewear.)
Speak to It
Speaking to it is the process of drawing a line in the endgrain of the wood using a metal wedge, effectively “telling” the wood how you would like it to split. The line that you draw will act like a check, or like a fault line, and if done properly the force of driving the wedge into the endgrain will resonate through the wood from top to backdoor. Speaking to it can help with two problems: The outer wood just won’t split off, or there are no checks in the endgrain for you to take advantage of. To speak to it, follow these steps:
1) Decide where you want to draw the line. Don’t draw a line that will lead directly to a knot. Ideally, you will draw a line that goes straight through the heart unless your round is huge, unfriendly, and you have not been able to split off any of the outer wood (this has happened to me when chopping ancient, huge scarlet oak rounds). If this is the case for you, the issue will be addresses in Step 3.
2) Take your splitting maul turned blade up in your primary hand and one of your sharp wedges in your other hand. You can also use a sledgehammer to drive wedges (I never bother), and if you do make sure it is a good heavy one. Draw a line in the endgrain by setting the wedge against the wood and tapping it with your maul, hard enough to drive it into the wood but not so hard that it gets stuck. I usually give it three or four good hits. This is probably an obvious statement, but I should mention that you should never use the blade of your splitting maul for this; the wedge would damage it badly. Repeat this until you have drawn a line (a whole diameter, really) from one edge of the round, through the heart, and to the other edge.
3) Alternative: If your wood is so nasty that you have not been able to split off any of the outer wood, and your round is huge, then you may want to start speaking to it by drawing a line that does not go through the heart. If you haven’t split any wood from the round yet, you should use the wedges to draw a line that separates about one-fifth of the round from the rest of it, always drawing the line from edge to edge and avoiding drawing a line that starts at or leads to a knot.
4) Once you have spoken to the wood, you will set your wedge and begin sinking it. Wedge placement can be important. Don’t set the wedge right in the center of the heart – in most cases, nothing much will happen if you do except that your wedge will be stuck and you will be frustrated. Instead, set the wedge between the heart and the sapwood, not exactly halfway but a little closer to the heart.
5) To set a wedge, hold it in your non-primary hand and hammer it with your maul or sledge hammer, careful not to smash your wrist, fingers, or hand in the process. Four or five good smacks and it should be sunk deep enough in the wood to stay in place.
6) Now that your wedge is set, step back. Using the same motion that you use to chop, swing your maul at the wedge and strike it squarely. Important: Your metal wedge should have four sides, two wider and two narrower. The voice of experience says, when using wedges never position yourself so that you are striking a wedge facing one of the narrow sides. If your wedge pops out due to strong grain tension or a near-miss from your maul, it will almost always go flying in one of the directions that the narrow edges are facing. So if you are facing a narrow edge, you risk having the wedge go flying at you.
7) Sink your wedge. As you do, the wood should be splitting apart where you told it to. If everything is going well, sink the wedge as far is it will go. Ideally, the round will split all the way down the fault line, your wedge will fall to the ground, and the big round will now be two chunks of wood. Your wedge might be stuck in the stringy grain of one of the pieces; if so, retrieve it. If the round you are working on split completely, you can skip down in this article to the topic “Take its Heart.” If the wood has not split completely, your wedge is sunk to the hilt, and the backdoor of the round is still held together, then try this: Take your splitting maul, move to the side of the split opposite where the wedge is, and chop into the fault line. This should finish it up. If the wood still has not split, you have a couple of options.
8) The first thing to try if you have already sunk one wedge and chopped at the wood with your maul, but to no avail, would be to set another wedge in the faultline that you have created. Follow the same steps for setting a wedge that we have already discussed, and sink that wedge. This will hopefully, finally, split the round in two.
If setting a second wedge doesn’t work, don’t despair! I have rarely found wood that I could not chop, even if the work took a while. Keeping reading and I’ll tell you what to do next.
Go in the Backdoor
This is a good trick that I’ve learned. Going in the back door simply means that you will flip the piece of wood over and instead of chopping into the top, as we usually do, you will chop the wood from the bottom. If you have a couple of wedges already sunk in a big round, then you should see a check in the endgrain of the bottom when you flip it over. (Be mindful of your back when turning over very large, heavy rounds of wood – they can weigh hundreds of pounds.) If the wood has not split all the way down yet, then do your best to estimate where the check should be. Your goal here with going in the backdoor will be to finish what you started up top.
In most cases you will find that your splitting maul is all you need. Swing at the check in the backdoor, or at where it looks like it should be if there isn’t a check. Work from edge to edge, and be as powerful as you can without hurting yourself. Try to be mindful of where those wedges are; if the wood pops apart, you don’t want to smash the blade of your maul into the wedges. You should be able to finish opening up the round this way.
If you’re dealing with a really awful piece of wood, your splitting maul might not be enough. In this case, set wedges in the backdoor of the round, speaking to it first, just like I’ve already described, and finish it up that way. If you only have three wedges, and two are already lodged in the top of the round, try to use your third wedge in the backdoor in such a way that you can free one of your other wedges. I’ve sometimes run out of wedges and actually used pieces of firewood, which I set as far into the fault line as I could, to pry the wood apart so that I could liberate one of my wedges.
Once you’ve used the backdoor method to get the two pieces of wood apart, flip them both over again so that you can continue chopping from the top. There’s a really useful approach that I usually employ once I get to this stage in the game.
How to Take Its Heart
Take Its Heart
Taking its heart is a fairly simply process, and is pretty self-explanatory. The goal is to remove the heartwood from the rest of the wood. This obviously only works if you have already at least halved a big round of wood. There’s good reason for taking its heart. The heartwood is the “hardest” wood, the oldest, and it is the center of grain tension. Removing it will, in most cases, make the remaining chunk of wood much easier to split.
In order to take the heart, you must first expose it. If you’ve followed my instructions and you’ve split a big round in half, through the heart, then you have two options.
1) You can split one of the halves in half (producing a quarter of the original round) which will further expose the heartwood. To do this, either use your splitting maul to take advantage of a check, use wedges to speak to it, or just beat out a line with your splitting maul until it comes apart. I find in most cases that once I have split a round in half, it is much easier to continue chopping without the use of wedges because the grain tension has been lessened. Every once in a while when dealing with a particularly stubborn or huge chunk of wood, I’ll use my wedges over and over again. Try it all, starting with the most expedient method (your splitting maul), and see which works best – every piece of wood is different.
2) Instead of halving it, you can chop the inner edges of the half-round, removing “pizza slices” of wood as you go. By chopping the inner edges, I mean that you should begin to chop off sections from the inside of the round, which you have exposed by splitting the original round in half. This tends to work really well with ash, oak, and maple, in my experience.
Whatever you choose to do, or whatever you have to do, you want to end up with a chunk of wood that is shaped more like a slice of pie or pizza than a semi-circle. Now you can take its heart.
To take the heart, aim your splitting maul about 6 or 7 inches (or the width of your standard piece of firewood) from the edge of the wood, which should be about the center of the heart. Swing your maul, and see what happens. In some cases, the heart will come loose right away. In others, it will take a few more swings. You should see progress in the form of a check that grows longer and deeper with each blow, until you dislodge the heartwood. If you’ve been chopping away at the heart for several minutes, and you see no progress, you can try moving closer to the edge (which would mean you would now be trying to dislodge a smaller piece). If that still doesn't work, there may be a knot or another problem in there, so flip it over and try going in the backdoor. If nothing seems to be working – you have a twisted, nasty heart there! - you should turn to your wedges. Speak to it, and you should be able to take the heart.
Conclusion and Further Reading
As you move on to the one of the three or four big chunks of wood that you have split from the big round, remember some of the things we’ve already discussed:
1) Take advantage of the checks. I always start my chopping by exploiting weaknesses in the wood.
2) No checks? Can’t make one with your splitting maul, either? Then speak to it with a wedge.
3) As the heartwood presents itself to you through your disassembling of the round, take the hearts out. This generally makes splitting up the rest of the wood easier.
4) As the pieces needing to be split get smaller, use a chopping block.
5) Don’t get too frustrated. If you get stuck, move on to something else and come back.
6) Remember that there are very few pieces of wood, no matter the species of tree it came from, that cannot be chopped using the right tools and techniques – the questions you should ask yourself are: What do I want this wood for? How valuable is this wood for my purpose? Does the value of the wood match up with the amount of time it will take to chop it into firewood? If you answered yes to the third question, then don’t give up.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this basic guide to chopping firewood. It should provide you with just about everything you need to get started chopping wood, or to polish up your skills if you have some experience already.
There are other things to discuss, more complicated issues to deal with. If you’re interested in more firewood-chopping fun, or if you’ve followed the instructions that I’ve provided here, you’ve tried your best, and you are still stuck on a big round or a particular chunk of wood that just doesn’t seem to want to split, I will be publishing a hub soon called “How to Chop / Split Firewood: Advanced Problems” for topics such as “getting the fish out,” “giving it a cross to bear,” freeing the star”, and “letting it think on it.”
And if there’s something that I haven’t covered, feel free to ask – I love helping, and I love a challenge!